The Wanted Man

When a couple of students objected to the course materials in Stephen Philion's race and culture class at Hamline University, he thought the trouble would pass. Wrong.

The issue largely lay dormant until the beginning of February, when Markowitz's 1,400-plus-word rebuttal was published in the Oracle. As Markowitz described the dispute, it began when Xiong approached him after class and questioned his curriculum and teaching style. Specifically, she thought that the course was "too Jewish" and that the professor was "oppressing her voice."

Markowitz explained in his letter to the newspaper that the class spent two sessions discussing a book about Jewish migration to the U.S. in the early 20th century. In addition, he devoted two sessions to the Holocaust and screened a documentary about Hasidic Jews in New York. (The class met a total of 28 times during the semester.)

Markowitz also bristled at Xiong's assertion that he was "oppressing her voice." "She conveniently fails to acknowledge the many times she participated in class discussions during the semester," Markowitz wrote. "She discussed elements of her culture during an extended session when members of the class each talked about something relevant to their own backgrounds. She asked for and received permission to discuss in class matters concerning the Hmong people."

Sean Smuda

Markowitz closed the letter by excoriating those who had criticized him. "We might want to examine very carefully the obvious satisfaction derived by a sanctimonious few who seem to always know what the university should do regarding, for example, matters of ethnicity, equality, and diversity," he bristled. "Claimed certitude can be and too often is a thin disguise for misguided zealotry."

Markowitz's letter provoked a spirited debate on campus. Numerous letters to the editor and editorials—in support of both positions—ran in the Oracle in the ensuing weeks. The newspaper itself was pilloried for publishing Markowitz's lengthy rebuttal, since op-ed pieces are normally limited to 500 words.

An anonymous pamphlet, headlined "Naming the Elephant," circulated on campus attacking Markowitz (although not by name), the school newspaper, and the university. "Hamline's own institutionalized racism ensures that the experience of a white male professor is given more credence than the experiences of students of color," the pamphlet stated. "The penalty for uprooting racism and naming it publicly has been severe. The dominant message has been that the act of revealing racism on Hamline's campus is far more abhorrent than the mistreatment of students of color."

In March, spurred in part by these events, some 35 undergraduates, dressed head-to-toe in black, staged a silent protest at the Hamline University Student Council demanding greater respect and representation for minority students. According to the account in the Oracle, a flyer was circulated during the protest with the heading, "Students of Color Demand a Voice!"

In the wake of this outcry, Markowitz informed the administration that he would no longer teach the "Racial and Cultural Minorities" course. There was even talk of simply eliminating it altogether. But ultimately it was decided that the class would be taught by an adjunct professor the next year.

Like Philion, Markowitz is a staunch liberal with a history of activism in social justice causes. In the late '70s, he served as chair of Hamline's cultural diversity committee and was active in pressuring the school to recruit more minority students and faculty members. Markowitz refused to be quoted for this story, saying that it would be too painful to revisit the issue. Fellow professor Nurith Zmora confirms that the attacks were devastating to Markowitz. "He didn't sleep for nights," she says. "He was really wrecked."

The two main objectors from Markowitz's class also decline to comment on the fracas. Maisue Xiong initially agreed to meet with a City Pages reporter, but then changed her mind. Colin Smith responded to an e-mail inquiry but declined to be interviewed. "I am now nine months removed from the situation and have lived out of state," he wrote. "Currently I am not as in touch with the situation at Hamline."

Prior to his sixth week's class, Philion received an e-mail from the chair of the sociology department, Melissa Embser-Herbert. She informed him that the student who had initially caused problems in the class had requested a meeting between the three of them. When Philion asked for some indication of the meeting's agenda, he was informed via e-mail that the student's concerns were threefold:

1. The notion that there exists a hierarchy of oppression.

2. Pedagogical concerns, e.g., being told whose writings were "of value" v. lack of opportunity for students to work through the arguments, with each other, and reach a conclusion.

3. Perceived disrespect re: student perceptions.

Philion describes the meeting, which took place just prior to class, as "very, very melodramatic," with lots of crying on the part of the student. Philion says that his syllabus was criticized by the student as being too Euro-centric and too white. When he pointed out that only one of the authors studied in the class was white, the line of attack shifted. Now the student complained that he was disrespectful and failed to "validate" her opinions. The upshot of the meeting, ultimately, was that everyone would take a step back and try to proceed amicably.

But Philion came away from it convinced that the only way to placate the student would be to run a therapy session rather than an intellectually rigorous course. "Let's have a kumbaya moment," is how he describes the attitude. "Let's model our classes after Oprah. I really think that's what they want. I'm dead certain of it."

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